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Weird Weather Patterns: The Forecast Is Bad for Cat Health

Climate change has increased tick-borne illnesses, which are bad for humans as well as cats.

 |  Jul 12th 2013  |   2 Contributions


According to some sources, tick populations in the United States are exploding. In northwest Georgia, for example, dramatically increased rainfall has led to an increase in the population of Lone Star ticks and dog ticks, which carry a protozoan parasite called Cytauxzoon felis.

The parasite, which causes a disease called cytauxzoonosis (in case you're wondering, that's pronounced "Sy-toe-zo-o-no-sis"), doesn’t often affect domestic cats. The bobcat is the primary host of the parasite and doesn’t suffer much more than a mild illness when it is first infected. Ticks that bite infected bobcats then spread the illness to other bobcats -- and domestic cats, too.

This is a deer tick, not a Lone Star tick, but all ticks feed by burying their heads into the skin and drinking the host animal's blood until they're engorged, at which time they fall off and start the whole thing all over again. Tick feeding on a cat, extreme close-up by Shutterstock

The trouble is, cytauxzoonosis causes severe illness and sometimes even death in most domestic cats. Infected cats show symptoms including depression, jaundice, high fever, dehydration, and, ultimately, hemorrhage. As the number of ticks increases, veterinarians in the area are concerned that they’re going to see more cases of the disease, and probably more sad endings as a result.

But why are tick populations and ranges increasing so rapidly? According to Veterinary Practice News, there are several factors at work including warmer winters; human expansion into wildlife ranges, which brings people, pets, wildlife and ticks together; and the increasing population of white-tailed deer, a preferred host for several tick species.

But tick-borne illnesses don’t just harm cats. Although cytauxzoonosis is not contagious to humans, many others, including Lyme disease, ehrlichosis, babesiosis, anaplasmosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, are. Both people and animals can be infected with more than one illness at the same time, which makes diagnosis even more challenging.

Several tick species find the white-tailed deer to be an excellent host. White-tailed doe scratching an itch by Shutterstock

Yes, winters in the northern United States have gotten warmer over the past 20 years, notwithstanding the jackasses in my neck of the woods who, when confronted with an actual seasonably cold winter day (of which there are increasingly few), say things like, “Global warming, huh? I doubt it!”

“Without the deep, hard, cold winters, we don't have the winter kill, and several ticks that were abundant in the South have moved north,” veterinarian Michael W. Dryden told Veterinary Practice News. And then some ticks, like deer ticks, don’t care about the cold anyway.

I don’t know how it’s possible to be even slightly conscious and fail to see that weather- and climate-wise, things have changed since you were a kid. It’s not about how warm or cold it is in your location at any given time; it’s the overall shift in weather patterns that provides the evidence of climate change. You don’t have to be a science nerd to observe the difference in total snowfall in your area, the increasing number and destructiveness of hurricanes and tropical storms, and tornadoes showing up in places they’ve never been seen before. Oh, and a drastically increasing number of ticks and “bionic fleas,” too.

Cats are so good at grooming themselves that you may never even see a tick, even if they have been bitten an infected. Russian Blue cat grooming itself by Shutterstock

If these things make you wonder what’s going on, you’re not alone. The tick explosion is causing trouble for cats in Georgia, and all pets everywhere, but it’s just one sign that our world’s climate is changing, and not for the better.

Do you have a cat that’s been infected a tick-borne disease? How did your vet figure out what was going on, and was the treatment successful? Have you found any tick preventives that work for your pets? And do you think I’m a complete nutcase for believing the spread of ticks and their host animals might have something to do with climate change? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.

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